An interesting account of Paul Simon’s eclectic, musical life
To have been alive during the last sixty years is to have lived with the music of Paul Simon. The boy from Queens scored his first hit record in 1957, just months after Elvis Presley ignited the rock era. As the songwriting half of Simon & Garfunkel, his work helped define the youth movement of the ’60s. On his own in the ’70s, Simon made radio-dominating hits. He kicked off the ’80s by reuniting with Garfunkel to perform for half a million New Yorkers in Central Park. Five years later, Simon’s album “Graceland” sold millions and spurred an international political controversy. And it doesn’t stop there.
The grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Hungary, the nearly 75-year-old singer-songwriter has not only sold more than 100 million records, won 15 Grammy awards and been installed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice, but has also animated the meaning — and flexibility — of personal and cultural identity in a rapidly shrinking world.
Simon has also lived one of the most vibrant lives of modern times; a story replete with tales of Carrie Fisher, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Shelley Duvall, Nelson Mandela, drugs, depression, marriage, divorce, and more. A life story with the scope and power of an epic novel, Carlin’s Homeward Bound is the first major biography of one of the most influential popular artists in American history.
Carlin is perhaps best known for Bruce, his exhaustive and best-selling biography of Bruce Springsteen (until this past week, it was probably the best-selling book on the Boss). In his latest book, he turns his attention to another mega-selling, internationally renowned musician: Paul Simon. Homeward Bound is a tighter biography than his previous book, and is sure to appeal to die-hard fans of Simon.
While I enjoyed Bruce, I found it to be exhausting in its detail: everything was included, seemingly regardless of what it might do to the flow of the narrative. This is not the case in Homeward Bound, and Carlin has certainly done a better job of keeping things focused. Partly, this may be because of a relative paucity of information about Simon’s pre-fame youth. Also, his youth was not the most exciting time (despite his short-lived first brush with fame as part of the singing duo Tom & Jerry — also with Art Garfunkel). This, of course, is not Carlin’s fault.
The book is filled with interesting chapters, detailing Simon’s musical and political educations. Carlin looks at his early disappointment after his father pushed him away from becoming a professional musician; his lifelong love of baseball (he seems to have been something of a neighbourhood hustler at one point); his travels in the UK learning about folk culture; and, of course, Simon’s rise to mega-stardom.
I feel die-hard fans of Paul Simon will get more out of this book than casual readers/fans. Given Carlin’s obvious interest in the music and analyzing their content, those unfamiliar with the tunes in question may find these sections meaningless. “I’ll take your word for it…” I found myself thinking on a couple of occasions. The chapters detailing the albums I am most familiar with were, as can be expected, of most interest to me.
My own experiences with Simon & Garfunkel (if you’ll permit the diversion) relate to the two main albums (Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Graduate Soundtrack), and the fact that they were on heavy-rotation when I was growing up. As a result, whenever I hear the title tracks, “Cecilia”, “Mrs. Robinson” and the others, I have flashbacks to the family’s drives from Germany to the UK, or evenings in our living room. Given my tendency to listen to the music of the subject of whichever music (auto)biography I’m reading, I certainly experienced a good number of these memories while reading Homeward Bound.
Carlin is clear about Simon’s character and personality, not letting a fan’s desire to paint a flattering portrait of an idol get in the way of honest portrayal: Simon is clearly a jealous person. He comes across as thin-skinned, easily offended, hungry for the spotlight, and not a little bit narcissistic. I thought one passage, in particular, captured this well: at one point, Carlin paints a picture of Paul watching Art play “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (which Paul wrote) alone on stage:
“Paul would give him that moment, lingering offstage as his partner absorbed the cheers. From where Paul stood, in the wings with a cigarette smoldering between his fingers, feeling the same envy that burned into him during the fourth-grade assembly. Artie alone in the spotlight taking the crowd for his own. Only now he’d written the song, now it was he, and not Artie, who deserved to be cheered. Because while Paul could definitely sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ Artie would never have been able to write it. And Paul had had just about enough of the world’s not understanding that.” (182-3)
Not so flattering. It’s especially unflattering and telling, when you consider that Simon insisted on Garfunkel singing the song, and took his partner’s initial demurral as criticism of the song…
Speaking of Art Garfunkel… He’s surprisingly absent from the book. He doesn’t feature nearly as prominently as I would have expected — true, before reading Homeward Bound, I didn’t not too much about the group — and frequently comes across as a bit-player, one easily dismissed. Given Simon’s professional opinion of his lifelong friend, that’s perhaps appropriate. Indeed, it’s made clear that Simon and Garfunkel were great friends on a personal level, but that when it came to being professional musicians, Simon thought he far, far outshone Garfunkel (see above quotation again).
The introduction may be the only chapter that properly highlights the author’s enthusiasm for his subject. Otherwise, the book is presented in a calm tone; not quite academic, but not overflowing with emotion, either. This may put off some readers, but after the story moves to sudden, incredible success of “The Sound of Silence”, the book really picks up and I found myself burning through the pages. Carlin is more interested in the music than he is the tabloid-gossip aspect of many celebrity biographies, which was no bad thing. But, at the same time, it is their lives that inform their art, so I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more coverage of his personal life.
To sum up: Homeward Bound is a must-read for long-time fans of Paul Simon’s music, looking for a substantial biography. It is not exhaustive, given the lack of access to the main subject, but it is packed with detail and interesting analysis. Casual readers, as I’ve mentioned above, may find the book a little plodding, if they are not familiar with Simon’s complete catalogue of work.